Three days in Mumbai: What a small taste of a small corner of a huge city can tell you (about yourself)

As I write this I am five days into my second visit to India in as many years. This time my stay is longer, my scope wider, my engagement deeper. It is as much about meeting, building and nurturing friendships and connections—long standing and new—as it is about “seeing a place.” One does not travel half the globe to inhabit, however briefly, a world that is so very different in texture, tone and sensations from one’s own without being open to experience. But it is a complicated negotiation at times.

As an outsider, and more specifically as a westerner from a city of a little over a million, I respond so viscerally to the intensity of the Indian metropolis. And yet I am ever conscious of my vantage point, skewed and out of context, informed by the romantic images of my youth and early adulthood—elegant colonial set-pieces, followed by the wave of popular biographies of Ghandi and Mother Theresa in the 80s. I do not wish to appear the starry-eyed searcher or the foreign curiosity seeker, for in truth I am neither. The attraction is real and formless. I feel it in my bones, but am hesitant to grant it words.

I am aware that I experience India from a point of both ignorance and privilege and to formulate a response to what I see and feel leaves me as anxious as a non-poet wanting to write about poetry but refusing to for fear of reading it “wrong”. As if there is only one way to read anything. There is no such thing as pure, unmitigated and unbiased experience.

And so to my present location: Bombay or Mumbai. With a population of over eighteen million souls, Mumbai is the largest city I have ever been in. It is arguably one of the very biggest on the planet. I have to confess I found it immediately oppressive and claustrophobic. From the moment you leave the airport, humanity crushes in on you. Densely packed slums crowd the space alongside the roadway, for kilometre after kilometre, giving way at times for marble and granite dealers, before returning again. Gradually the apparent quality of the hovels improves, but it is an urbanized poverty on a scale that is difficult to process. I knew it was there. Maybe I didn’t expect to see it so explicitly.

The ride into the city was endless. A thick yellow haze hung in the air and I began to regret my decision to hire a non-A/C cab. In the rear view mirror I could see the eyes of the driver watering. With the smog and exhaust fumes blowing in through the open windows, I wondered what it would be like to spend each day moving back and forth through the impatient traffic and gridlock hour after hour.

For the traveller who arrives by air, a city makes her first impressions in the journey in from the airport. Mumbai’s welcome is pungent and emotionally disarming. From the vibrant interior of an ancient yellow and black cab, I watch the corrugated metal landscape pass as we slowly descended into the city. I take no pictures. It would not feel right.

Once I am finally settled in my hotel in the Fort area of south Mumbai, I grab my backpack and head out. The streets of the city are noisy, fast and congested. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that they often appear empty in photographs—it’s an illusion!) They seem to change flavour and character from block to block. Crossing the street, even daring to walk along the edges where the uneven pathways are blocked, or nonexistent, is an exercise in blind faith. A motorcycle is likely to roar up behind you, racing against the flow of traffic, blaring its horn to make you disappear. A legless older woman working a rusted handcart down the side of the road is my new hero. I’m at odds to know what I think of this place. I feel a little pressed under the weight of the space.

As ever, I take note of the street dogs. Here they’re a rather sorry assortment of creatures, weary and worn. Perhaps they don’t stand a chance against the cats that appear to quite handily own this part of town.

My immediate destination lies in the heart of the Kala Ghoda arts district. The area is crowded. Following my friend google  in search of the library where the literary portion of the annual arts festival is to be held, leads me through a bag search, metal detector and frisking, and into a large square crowded with young people  A variety of  sometimes quite tacky horse-themed artworks are displayed and the selfie generation is quite enamoured of them all. I am a little perplexed. I later learn that this is a new addition to the festivities, one that has drawn large numbers of people, mostly young, in from the suburbs, not for the arts so much as the party atmosphere. This type of attraction and congestion alters the tenor of the area. Of course, I’m here for the festival too—a little unexpected serendipity—but fortunately the literary programming is taking place beyond this makeshift corral, across the road in a garden oasis behind the David Sassoon Library. There one is magically removed from the noisy traffic and crowds on the street outside.

Now on my final day in the city, at least one tiny corner of Mumbai is less strange. The streets seem shorter, less confusing. The architecture is beautiful. This part of the city wears its age with grace. I have been to the Gateway of India, the obligatory tourist gesture, and today I saw the sea from the other side, looking out from Marine Drive. A completely different world unfolds there. Large, expensive vehicles line the shady streets, students pour out of colleges and universities, and in the distance, across the waters, the towers of the city’s centre appear ghostly in the midday heat. But it’s hot. I don’t stay long.

So, after my first, brief encounter with Mumbai, three things remain: the gift of being a stranger in a place where, despite disorientation and an inability to comfortably communicate, a little semblance of familiarity begins to emerge; the necessary joy that literary community affords including the precious opportunity to meet, in person, supportive and inspiring writers previously known only online; and finally, the chance to experience a hectic, sometimes seemingly harsh, city at rest. Late last night, after a wonderful, long visit with a friend, I made my way back to my hotel through the quiet virtually empty streets. Ranjit accompanied me part of the way, down byways I likely would not have attempted on my own, until he was certain I knew where I was, and I finished the walk alone. Here and there men spoke quietly, or bid one another good night. On sidewalks, those without homes were already fast asleep, and lonely yellow and black cabs crawled by, hopeful for a late night fare.

Funny that such a huge city could test me by day, and win me over at night.